My initial introduction to the Japan Foundation was with their wonderful “Let’s Learn Japanese Basic: Yan and the Japanese People” series. When I first started learning Japanese it was with Living Language’s book and CD set. I wasn’t happy with that method, and it was hurting my desire to study Japanese. So, with some desperate Internet searching we managed to stumble across Yan and the Japanese People.
Well, I was now happy. I had a new program that looked like it would be great fun to use. I did still have one concern, though. You see, I was going through many different reviews of some of the cheaper language learning programs out there in an attempt to find something else to use. What I found out wasn’t very good. One of the most common complaints I was reading was that programs were teaching people “outdated Japanese”. Since Yan and the Japanese People was made in the 80’s, I was concerned this would end up happening to me.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I found out about “Erin’s Challenge I can Speak Japanese”. For the sake of completeness, I’m going to include the entire little snippet that I found on Wikipedia.
“A fresh start brought the third series “Erin’s Challenge / I can speak Japanese”, which aired first in spring 2007 and is also available as DVD. As it is especially designed for young people it features skits about Senior High School Students which are explained by computer animated figures. The main character Erin is learning Japanese with the help of the teacher Honigon and a small robot called N21-J. Besides the regular skits and explanations, there is also more information about Japan, its students and people around the world who are learning Japanese, too.”
To my shock and amazement, this little bit of text remains untouched to this day. I really should consider updating it at some point.
So, with this new information in hand, I went off towards the Japan Foundation website seeking answers. After-all, not only was this a modern day version of the program that I liked, but it’s still being actively made by the Japan Foundation.
After some discussions with the Los Angeles office of the Japan Foundation (not my closest one, but it was after business hours in my time zone =P), I found out that there is only one version of Erin’s Challenge produced (so I wouldn’t have to worry about buying the wrong language accidentally) and that the only place they knew I could order it from was Kinokuniya Bookstore in New York City.
I called Kinyokuniya bookstore and placed an order for only $35 dollars. Considering they had to import it, I think that’s pretty reasonable (it’s 2,400yen normally). I must say, this store deserves some free press. I was really happy with the service and speed that they handled this all with. So, if you need a book imported from Japan, they have my recommendation. =D
So, about 1 week later I received my Erin’s Challenge. After all this build up, I was expecting something amazing. You know what they say about never getting your hopes up? They’re right. Now, we’ll start off by saying that I could not use this program to learn Japanese. Almost the entire workbook (with the exception of about 5 pages) is written in Japanese, which at the time I didn’t know a single character of. What’s worse is that the lessons (which seemed to possess a similar structure to Yan and the Japanese People) also seemed to be completely in Japanese. Dismayed, I went back to Yan and the Japanese people, figuring that once I finished the first two parts of the series, I would be able to move on to this one.
So, off it went into my desk to not be heard from for over a year. It really should have come out sooner, but as I previously admitted, I was terrible about doing my studies in the beginning.
Here I am, one year later. I may not be much older or wiser, but I do know quite a bit more Japanese than I did at the start of this. With Yan leaving Japan and the series coming to an end, I figured it was finally time to dust off this program and give it a go.
Now, before I go into too much detail, I will quote a small portion from the book (that happens to be written in English) that explains what this is to be used for.
From the introduction:
This DVD teaching material mainly targets young students and is a resource to foster learning in two fundamental areas, “language study” and “understanding of different/multiple cultures.” The material is not intended as main Japanese-language study material to be followed in order from the beginning; rather, it is for students following various curriculums in different countries to review as desired in order to increase their interest in studying Japanese and Japanese culture. Therefore, when using the material in class, teachers should be flexible and take the character of each class into account.
Disappointed that this program was not going to be a replacement for Yan and the Japanese People, I figured I’d give it a go anyway. So, loading up the first lesson on the DVD, I selected the “English Subtitle” option from a rather large list. To my amazement, the episode starts and they introduce us to Erin and our new teachers, but they don’t provide us with subtitles. Now fortunately for me, I’ve covered quite a bit of Japanese by now, and I actually understood everything they were saying.
It wasn’t until about 5 minutes in that I became truly confused. They have a similar setup to Yan and the Japanese people. They have the teacher greet you and then they send Erin off into a TV screen where she pops out as a normal human. Once inside, she goes about her daily life and we get to see her struggle a little bit with the language as she goes about meeting her class, going shopping, and various other things that people do. Normally I’d be happy that they still have these, but they kind of missed the point. As it turns out, the DVD does have subtitles, but only on these skits.
Now in previous incarnations (Let’s Learn Japanese Basic I and II), they used these skits to get you used to hearing Japanese spoken in an everyday environment and to get you used to hearing it spoken at normal speed. This is one of my favorite features of Yan and the Japanese People. I’m highly disappointed that other language learning programs don’t do things like this. The difference between normal speed and the slow sounding out that almost everything uses can be astounding at times. But, I’m going off on a bit of a rant.
Anyway, I personally think that they ruined this portion of the lessons, but I’m sure some people would disagree with me. So, in the first lesson (which I imagine is intended to be the easiest lesson) they decide to cover “Hajimemashite”. Having already learned this, and being able to understand most of what was spoken so far, I was actually enjoying myself. It wasn’t until after the skit that I became really confused.
After the skit we get shown our teacher again, and he starts to explain one sentence taken from the skit. I’m glad they’re consistent in this, as I really did enjoy the learning method from Yan and the Japanese People. So, our teacher shows us some clips of people introducing themselves to others, and then puts the word (in this case, hajimemashite) on a blackboard. He then explains to us that there are times when you don’t need to use hajimemashite. Now this is where I take issue. They don’t leave the blackboard while he’s doing this, so it’s not like you get a clip to help understand the situation he’s talking about. To make matters even worse, his explanation was complicated enough that I have no idea what he said.
So, this is a language learning program that requires one to speak more advanced Japanese than I am currently capable of. I could understand them doing that, but it just doesn’t make any sense. In this first episode, they’re teaching people Hajimemashite! I mean, I covered this in my first lesson of every other language learning program I’ve tried. I’ve even got a little card of useful phrases that contains it. I mean, who could possibly still need to learn this if they can already speak better Japanese than I can right now? What’s worse is they could have made this thing usable. All they would have had to do is translate the Teacher instead of the skits (which I still feel they shouldn’t have put subtitles on anyway) and it would be fully usable at almost any level with the language.
Was it a total waste of money? Not fully. I did enjoy being able to understand almost everything I saw over the 30 minutes or so of the lesson. I also really liked some of the other things they ended up showing us. They have various different clips of other people who are struggling with the language in classes all over the world, and considering how “isolated” learning at home can be, I rather enjoyed seeing other people struggle with the same things I was having trouble with.
So, I can’t really recommend this one. I’m a huge fan of the Japan Foundation, but this just doesn’t seem to be up to snuff. I checked out the later episodes and they all suffer from the same problems as the first. Maybe if you had a teacher who could explain the parts you can’t understand to you, it would be useful, but as it stands I find it rather unusable.
While I do still have all of the problems listed with the DVD set, they have put most of the content from the DVDs onto an official website that everyone can use for FREE. What’s more, you can control when you want the subtitles turned on or off. With this in place, I can’t help but recommend this webpage to EVERYONE who is studying Japanese. It uses my favorite method of learning Japanese, and with the explanations finally in English, even a beginner will get something out of it (plus, it shows the Japan Foundation we care, which might encourage them to make more products =D).
To find this webpage you can either click the link in the comment below or check my Links page. =D